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The Bonn UN climate talks: What's at stake and what's next?

  • 11 Jun 2014, 16:00
  • Ros Donald

Bonn's hotels are full of climate officials this week. They're in town to complete another step toward a deal to cut global emissions that can replace 1997's Kyoto Protocol

The Bonn talks are a relatively small affair, but they still play an important role in inching countries toward an accord to limit climate change by reducing the amount of carbon dioxide they emit. So what's being discussed? 

What's the timeline? 

Countries signed the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) in 1992. Five years later, the Kyoto Protocol was negotiated and agreed. The convention now has 195 signatories, and the Kyoto Protocol has 192. 

The Conference of the Parties (COP) is the UNFCCC's decision-making body, made up of all the convention's signatories. Representatives meet each year for the COP meetings. 

The Bonn climate change conference is being held over 12 days until 14 June. It marks  a halfway point between last year's COP meeting in Warsaw (COP 19) and this year's in Lima this December (COP 20). 

At the COPs - much bigger affairs than the talks in Bonn this week - ministers and negotiators get together to decide the terms that will help them reach the global deal. Officials plan to have a draft text for a global deal agreed by the time negotiators and ministers meet in Peru in December, which contains all the elements necessary for a negotiation text in 2015. 

Then at the next COP, in Paris 2015, delegates will negotiate the final terms of a new climate accord. It will come in once the Kyoto protocol expires in 2020. 

What are the parties discussing this week? 

The talks over the 12 days in Bonn focus primarily  on tackling countries' commitments to cut emissions before 2020. But they also touch on key points related to a new global deal, intended to replace Kyoto, which is scheduled to be agreed at the COP in Paris next year. 

The UNFCCC  says the negotiations are an important step towards that goal. And some issues have moved to the forefront of the agenda for the Bonn talks.   

Adaptation 

Traditionally granted a less-than-starring role at the UNFCCC negotiations, measures to help adaptation to the effects of climate change are now starting to be worked on as seriously as pledges to cut emissions. 

It's set to become a key priority for negotiations in Peru, with the host country pushing hard for countries to pay greater attention to adaptation issues.  Liz Gallagher at environmental thinktank E3G says: 

"Adaptation has long been undervalued. Seen as just a developing country issue centred around a call for more money. But in fact, it's about protecting our national interest.  Adaptation isn't just about building sea walls, it's also about managing climate risk. If countries took the threat of climate change as seriously as they take nuclear deterrence we would see a vastly different response." 

One reason adaptation has gained greater prominence in the talks may be that the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change's latest report  presents a far more complete picture of adaptation research than in previous edition, and couches discussion of adaptation in the language of risk management. 

Draft text 

The negotiations are also going to be key in deciding how the draft agreement text is compiled in time for the Lima summit. The UNFCCC co-chairs Kishan Kumarsingh, Artur Runge-Metzger and Anna Serzysko, hope to be able to compile a text themselves. 

Based on countries' submissions, in which they suggest items for the agenda and offer pledges to reduce emissions, the co-chairs hope to create a document containing all the elements ready for a global deal, ready to be negotiated. 

But there is already resistance to the proposal from some countries, according to sources, either from those that feel the chairs are too sympathetic to developed nations, or from countries that are trying to resist pledges they consider to be too stringent. 

Fewer ministers than hoped 

Some press coverage has focused on the dearth of government ministers attending the talks. The BBC says only 50 out of a possible 146 ministers had turned up by the end of last week. A couple of years ago, negotiators agreed that ministers would attend in order to check in on their progress and focus on raising ambition from now until 2020, when the Kyoto Protocol is to be replaced by the Paris agreement. 

Campaigners have been disappointed that so few ministers showed up - and say the performance of those present has been less than impressive, bringing little in terms of new commitments to the table. Alix Mazounie at French NGO Réseau Action Climat says last week, ministers came to a roundtable on Kyoto ambition last week "empty handed or did not come at all". 

What next? 

The next step for the UNFCCC process will be December's COP talks in Lima this year. But before that, UN Secretary General, Ban ki Moon has invited heads of state to attend a climate summit on 23 September. 

News website RTCC reports that not many heads of state have yet confirmed they'll be attending, although it is unlikely many of them will shun the event in the end. Indeed, Gallagher suggests in a recent blog that it's likely any big announcements are likely to be saved until then. 

Commenters say it's important countries deliver. Saleemul Huq at the International Institute for Environment and Development says: 

"It is very important for political leaders to make public commitments on their level of ambition at the summit. One of the lessons from the failure to achieve agreement [at the 2007 COP] in Copenhagen was that the political leaders came into the process at the very end and by then it was too late." 

Huq adds: 

"[This time, Ban] took the personal, initiative to invite them well ahead of time to make public commitments to support a good outcome. The negotiators can then put the words of their leaders into action in the Paris agreement."

There are some grounds to believe September's meeting could yield positive results for a global deal on climate. Both China and the US last week suggested they might increase the ambition of their carbon cutting plans. While these announcements haven't yet fed into the talks at Bonn, there's a chance they could start to influence negotiations further down the line.

Other countries appear more likely to put up roadblocks to ambition than before, however. Just yesterday, Australia asked the UK to join a ' conservative alliance' of countries opposed to 'unwise' action on climate change and carbon pricing. The UK looks set to rebuff his approach, however. 

September's conference is likely to tempt far more reporters to file on the state of the climate talks so far. But what's decided at Bonn is still a key marker on the road to a global deal.

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